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Beyond the Big Ditch

Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal

Ashley Carse
Series: Infrastructures
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Beyond the Big Ditch
    Book Description:

    In this innovative book, Ashley Carse traces the water that flows into and out from the Panama Canal to explain how global shipping is entangled with Panama's cultural and physical landscapes. By following container ships as they travel downstream along maritime routes and tracing rivers upstream across the populated watershed that feeds the canal, he explores the politics of environmental management around a waterway that links faraway ports and markets to nearby farms, forests, cities, and rural communities. Carse draws on a wide range of ethnographic and archival material to show the social and ecological implications of transportation across Panama. The Canal moves ships over an aquatic staircase of locks that demand an enormous amount of fresh water from the surrounding region. Each passing ship drains 52 million gallons out to sea -- a volume comparable to the daily water use of half a million Panamanians. Infrastructures like the Panama Canal, Carse argues, do not simply conquer nature; they rework ecologies in ways that serve specific political and economic priorities. Interweaving histories that range from the depopulation of the U.S. Canal Zone a century ago to road construction conflicts and water hyacinth invasions in canal waters, the book illuminates the human and nonhuman actors that have come together at the margins of the famous trade route. 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal.Beyond the Big Ditchcalls us to consider how infrastructures are materially embedded in place, producing environments with winners and losers.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-32046-7
    Subjects: Technology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. 1 Introduction: The Machete and the Freighter
    (pp. 1-24)

    If you travel to Panama and want to see its canal, you will likely end up at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center on the outskirts of Panama City. The building’ s interior—all cream adobe walls, towering plate glass windows, and marble floors—is a showcase for the history of the iconic trade route. It contains a museum, a theater, and a gift shop selling canal neckties and tea sets. But the real action is outside. From a three-tiered viewing deck, tourists watch a parade of container ships, tankers, and cruise ships pass through locks built a century ago.


  6. I Headwaters

    • 2 Monte
      (pp. 27-36)

      Luis invited me to come back to Boquerón to work with him on hismonte(farm plot) after my research for this book was finished.¹ So, in June 2010, I drove from Panama City to his community of less than 150 people next to a river that shares its name. Boquerón is located in Panama’s Chagres National Park and is also relatively close to the country’s largest cities, Panama City and Colón—some three hours from either by bus and less by car. But nestled among forested mountains with intermittent bus service, no phone service (cell or land line), and an...

    • 3 Making the Panama Canal Watershed
      (pp. 37-58)

      Francisco Ramos is a forest guard with Panama’s national environmental agency, ANAM (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente). When I met him at the agency’s regional office in the upper Chagres River basin,² Francisco — an athletic fifty-year-old in a khaki uniform with short black hair—was sitting at his desk, but he spends much of his time working in the field. Since 1984, when the Chagres National Park was established, he has been inspecting land cover on farms inside the park, includingmonteplots worked by smallholders like my friend Luis. He and other forest guards examine the secondary growth of grass,...

    • 4 Frank Robinson’s Map
      (pp. 59-68)

      The landscape changed rapidly as our small airplane approached Panama City. Past the forested mountains around the upper Chagres River, low-density urban sprawl gave way to older parts of the city and a wall of glass skyscrapers pushed up against the waterfront. Ships dotted the Bay of Panama waiting their turn to enter and transit the canal. I flipped through Air Panama’s in-flight magazine and came across an article entitled “The Miracle of the Watershed” nestled among glossy photos of water, forest, and sky. In it, the author describes the relationships among the rural, urban, and maritime landscapes visible from...

  7. II Floodplains

    • 5 Life along the River (Miocene-1903)
      (pp. 71-92)

      The Panamanian historian Bonifacio Pereira Jiménez observed that the history of Panama is, to a certain extent, the biography of the Chagres River.¹ The existing lock canal is only the most recent chapter in that story. The land and water routes that grew up around the river carried fabulous wealth from Spanish colonies in South America and then the gold mined by US forty-niners in California. Today, the river floats containerships and tankers carrying cargo from around the world.

      Geography and history are inseparable in accounts of Panama. Observers have long suggested that the isthmus’s most important natural resource is...

    • 6 Canal Construction and the Politics of Water
      (pp. 93-120)

      Before the canal, there was the river. The Chagres was the central artery of a region veined with roads and railroads funded by colonial and imperial powers and built and maintained by migrant laborers. The river also had a life of its own. It flooded in the rainy season and ran shallow during the dry season, thereby exerting agency over travelers and the local boat pilots and mule train drivers that facilitated their journeys. The construction of the Panama Canal during the first two decades of the twentieth century was, in large part, an effort to discipline the river by...

    • 7 Pueblos Perdidos, or How the Lake Ate the River
      (pp. 121-130)

      I first visited Limón in March 2008. That morning, I caught a bus at a busy shopping mall on the outskirts of Panama City. Not realizing that I had mistakenly boarded a “regular” bus that would crawl through miles of urban sprawl before reaching the highway (rather than a more direct “express” bus), I wedged my knees into the torn brown vinyl seatback in front of me. A long three hours later, I stepped down onto the shoulder of the Transístmica, the congested highway between Panama City and Colón that runs parallel to the canal, and caught a taxi into...

    • 8 The Agricultural Possibilities of the Canal Zone
      (pp. 131-156)

      In 1909, five years after canal construction began, the soil scientist Hugh H. Bennett and horticulturalist William A. Taylor arrived in Panama to study the agricultural possibilities of the Canal Zone. At the request of George Goethals, chief engineer of the canal the US Department of Agriculture sent the scientists to the isthmus at the height of construction to explore the potential of the country’s new tropical possession for gardens, farms, and ranches. Goethals’s request was, at least in part, a response to growing complaints and concerns about the canned and shelf-stable provisions that administrators fed tens of thousands of...

  8. III The Interior

    • 9 Getting Across and Getting Around
      (pp. 159-166)

      While conducting research, I often drove between Panama City and my field sites in the rural areas around the canal. To get to Limón or Boquerón, you drive north from the city on Avenida Omar Torrijos Herrera (figure 9.2). Formerly known as the Gaillard Highway, the road runs along the east bank of the canal. Beginning near the Panama Canal administration building in Balboa, it skirts the former Canal Zone community of Albrook, now a suburb with shopping centers, chain fast food restaurants, and manicured lawns. Past Albrook is the passenger station for the Panama Railroad, which is still in...

    • 10 The World United, Panama Divided
      (pp. 167-184)

      The Panama Canal operates smoothly for the most part, but getting around the surrounding region takes an inordinate amount of residents’ time, money, and energy. From rural villages to urban centers, friction—not flow—is the dominant experience of movement: bouncing on bus seats, standing and swaying in crowded pick-up beds, and sitting in traffic jams. The juxtaposition of global flow and regional friction in Panama’s transit zone runs deeper than irony, for both are outcomes of how networked infrastructures are built, managed, and maintained.

      On the one hand, roads, railroads, and engineered waterways facilitate connections between communities. On the...

    • 11 The Conquest of the Jungle
      (pp. 185-204)

      By 2008, few residents of Boquerón remembered the details about Macario and themadereros(loggers), but most agreed that they cut the firstcamino de verano—a dirt road passable only during the dry season—opening the area around the river to settlement. We know that the road had been carved from the forest by 1957 because the Smithsonian ornithologist Alexander Wetmore photographed it during a collecting trip around Madden Lake that year (figure 11.1).

      Loggers were not new to the Chagres River region in the 1950s. In fact, downstream areas along transit routes had been logged for at least a century,...

  9. IV Backwaters

    • 12 Weeds
      (pp. 207-218)

      Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) has been called the world’s worst aquatic weed. The invasive floating plant, a native of South America capable of doubling in population and surface area in weeks, is now found in waterways on every continent except Antarctica. In tropical and subtropical areas from Louisiana to Florida, Kenya to Zimbabwe, and India to the Philippines, water hyacinth creates thick mats across the surfaces of lakes, rivers, and canals, choking navigation, hydroelectric production, and other socioeconomic activities that require open waterways. The plant’s leaves and attractive flowers are visible above the surface, but it spreads via underwater rhizomes,...

    • 13 A Demanding Environment
      (pp. 219-222)

      The road connecting Boquerón to the Transístmica never arrived for good, marking the final conquest of the jungle. Instead, the road was always unfinished, advancing and retreating in relation to the capital, labor, and machinery mobilized by various actors in search of manganese, lumber, and political subjects. For the road to retain the material qualities that defined it as such in the face of the long downpours of the rainy season and heavy traffic, it had to be constantly maintained or the precarious regional connections that it enabled would fall apart.

      Rural people are not the only ones in Panama’s...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 223-260)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 261-274)
  12. Index
    (pp. 275-298)